The Fear of Being Alone

For: The Momenta Quartet

This string quartet, premiered by the Momenta Quartet at Newcastle University as part of the 2008 ¡Vamos! Festival, was written whilst studying for my Masters, and below I have reproduced (with only some small revisions) the commentary that I wrote about the piece at the time:

The starting point for writing my first string quartet was a desire to revisit a compositional technique used simply, but to good effect, in the first of Three Rhythmical Studies for piano (2005). In this earlier piece a straightforward two-part counterpoint was formed between each hand’s long, unbroken line of meandering syncopations, the clarity of which lay in the inner relationship between the two parts. In brief, the upper part consisted of a long chain of three non-retrogradable rhythms placed one after the other followed by the same rhythms in augmented form. Through this was run a twelve-note row, deliberately cutting across the divisions between individual non-retrogradable rhythms. And finally, the existing line was divided into small equal sections that were then placed below it in reverse order, one octave lower, to form the lower part. This process not only created a satisfying form whereby the two parts slowly swapped material but also led to a complete rhythmic and melodic unity which nevertheless provided sustained interest.

With the larger scale and expanded forces of The Fear of Being Alone this technique was used in forming a series of distinct passages of two-part counterpoint to act as starting points for each of the nine sections in the piece. This material is used freely within each section and ‘exploded’ out to fill the four parts, the interaction between the two lines forming the basis of the highly contrapuntal music that emerges. The lack of any large-scale thematic development in favour of the more textural approach that the above process dictates meant that a series of short movements was the ideal structure for the quartet. But rhythmic unity alone – each section uses elements of the same three non-retrogradable rhythms – would not be enough to bind the work’s nine separate movements together. The pre-compositional work on the quartet therefore included not only the basic material for each section but also their shape and their relationship to each other.

The nine sections – nine for no other reason than it’s a manageable odd number giving a central focal section – were conceived as being, on paper at least, essentially identical frameworks or grids on to (or in to) which the material would be placed, each one containing the same number of bars and making up two pages of the full score. But despite appearing at first glance to be identical, the individual detail of each one and the overall form of the piece results in each section having a different duration, which in turn affects its mood, character, and structural weight. The individual bar lengths within each section were randomly determined and the tempo of each section becomes progressively slower towards the central section before progressively increasing again to return to the initial tempo. This inverted arch-like form presents an interesting twist on the age-old fast-slow-fast pattern but may also result in a different perception of the tempo at the end from that at the beginning due to the journey from one to the other.

It wasn’t until very near the end of the compositional process that a suitable title emerged, but when it did it cast new light on the techniques I had employed in writing the quartet. The title alludes to part of a song entitled What’s the Use of Wings? by Yorkshire-born singer-songwriter Brian Bedford:

 Why do people cage the things they love the most?

Is it simply that they fear to be alone?

If you give your love its freedom it may stay a while

If it leaves you it was never yours to own

The process of composition is all about controlling the material you choose to use, but on the other hand allowing those materials to have a certain amount of freedom can lead you to discover things which you may not otherwise have found. This balance between structure and freedom, between systematic pre-compositional work and the more intuitive act of composition itself, is something which I’m continually thinking about in relation to my work. Whilst these different stages of the creative process often intertwine and influence each other, with The Fear of Being Alone there was for once a very clear division between the two. In light of the passage above, the pre-compositional frameworks of each section can be seen to act very much like ‘cages’ for the material and the occasional glimpses of material from preceding sections therefore take on the nature of fleeting ‘escapes’. Yet I believe there was sufficient freedom in my chosen method that a satisfying piece emerged as an end result.

Featured image: The Momenta Quartet (© John Gurrin)

“Tom Albans achieved an impressive unity in the nine contrasting miniature movements of his quartet” – Review of The Momenta Quartet, King’s Hall, Newcastle University by Thomas Hall, The Journal (July 17th 2008)